Minimalism in History (1) – Ibn Ezra’s Twelfth-Century Minimalism based on King Og’s Bed

Earlier this year, Peter Enns published The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Brazos Press, 2012). The aim of the book is to give Christian believers different ways to accept both the scientific fact of evolution and the Christian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, in light especially of recent controversies. As Greg Dawes argues, the attempt to reconcile evolution and the Bible cannot be justified without radically – if not tendentiously – revising traditional Christian doctrines. Yet the existential-religious need to retain faith without abandoning the best-supported findings of mainstream science means that Enns will attract what is a potentially a very large audience for his attempt to harmonise the “magisteria” of science and faith.

In the first chapter, Enns discusses two pre-modern interpreters – one Christian and one Jewish – who recognised that the “books of Moses” could not be written entirely by Moses: Jerome and Abraham Ibn Ezra.

Back in the fourth century AD, the Church Father Jerome was troubled by the fact that Deuteronomy 34.6 narrates Moses’s death (p. 15). This is strange given the traditional attribution of the book to Moses (although Deuteronomy itself attributes only the great core of Deuteronomy to the direct speech of Moses, not the whole book). In addition, Jerome recongised that the clause in that verse, “but no one knows his burial place to this day” must have been written a while after the death of Moses. Jerome concluded that Deut. 34.6 (at least) referred to the time of Ezra, in the Persian Period of the 400s BC. This makes Jerome, the Church Father, something of a minimalist – at least by the standards of North American apologists such as Ian Provan, Philips Long, and Tremper Longman.

The Evolution of AdamThe twelfth-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra referred to a number of problems with Deuteronomy which imply it was written by an author other than Moses – and Enns sets these out on p. 16 of The Evolution of Adam. One of these concerns the reference to the giant King Og of Bashan:

According to Deuteronomy 3.11, the nine-cubit-long bed of iron of Og king of Bashan “can still be seen in Rabbah”. This sounded to Ibn Ezra like an explanation for an ancient relic. He attributed this comment to the time of David, who conquered the city (2 Sam. 12.30).

By twelfth-century standards, attributing words from one of the books of Moses to the time of David must have constituted gross minimalism. Whoever were the twelfth century equivalent of the Westminster Theological Seminary must have been baying for Ibn Ezra’s blood at the time. Today, of course, things have moved on, and attributing the Pentateuch to a period as early as the eleventh or tenth century BC is no longer feasible. But we have got to that conclusion by standing on the shoulders of giants such as Jerome and Ibn Ezra.

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